My Critique Group’s in Cahoots with Donald Maass

I had a wonderful time at a brief writing retreat last weekend. One of my critique partners lives a bit further up the mountain from me, and she opened up our house to us starting Saturday afternoon, with a fire in the fireplace and a pot of stew on the stove. I was only able to stay through dinner, but I curled up on her incredibly comfy couch, yes–in front of the fire–and worked through some more exercises in Maass’ Breakout Novel Workbook.

For those of you who don’t follow me on Facebook, where I already posted this photo, here’ s the basic view out the windows.

I know.

Anyway, I made big progress, only coming up stuck at one point–when Maass wanted me to figure out the thing Caro wants and then figure out the opposite of that. (He’s SO demanding!) If you’ve read Maass’ Breakout Novel book & workbook, you know that he thinks big. Or BIG. And he wants us to. He’s not satisfied with events and effects and people who only impact their narrow, personal world–he wants to see how their actions and problems resonate outward and, yeah, create bigger problems, bigger solutions, and bigger heroes.

So I thought I had the basics of that opposite desire, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t enough. Not just because Mr. Maass would tell me it wasn’t, but because I could see that the pull on my hero from this need wasn’t going to counter that original desire–in other words, there wasn’t going to be enough tension. The stakes for Caro, if she gave up that opposite need, just weren’t going to matter a whole lot.

So I sent an email to my critique group and asked for some brainstorming time around this question.

You know what they say: Be careful what you ask for.

Oh, boy. I thought I wanted to make things bigger. I thought I wanted to amp up the problems. Listen, what I wanted was nothing compared to what my critique partners wanted. Yep, they were right there on Donald Maass’ side. Totally.

And…*BIG SIGH*…they were right.

I could see it, right there. As I thought about what they said, my stomach tightened up and my heart clenched, not just for Caro, but for so many other characters in her story. And for me. I swear, I may have broken out in a cold sweat. And as one 0f the women at that table reminded me, that’s when you know you’re on the right track.

Or at least when your critique partners and Donald Maass are.

I have to admit, I was pretty intimidated. But this is why I’m in a critique group. It’s why I’m in THIS critique group. Because you don’t think I let them off the hook, do you? I took a deep breath and asked, “Will you guys help me do this?”

There wasn’t a split second of thought before all the yes’s came back at me.

Thank goodness.



  1. Sometimes what you already know is what’s the hardest to hear.

    AND…we’re here for you because you’re here for us…


  2. Dear Becky,
    Like you always say, “Just keep plugging away. It’ll work. It’ll work.”


  3. great post and reminder to go back to Maas’s book. Thanks.


  4. Joanna says:

    Sounds like a pretty awesome critique group, Becky ๐Ÿ™‚


  5. Becky
    You are so lucky to have that group (as they are to have you!). Funny thing, a very similar thing happened to me recently with an extremely insightful beta reader…it’s hard to hear especially when it rings true, because you know the mountain of work in front of you. I’ve just picked up the Donald Maass book – between him and you, I should be golden (eventually!)


    • beckylevine says:

      Oh, I can handle GETTING the pain, but giving it… ๐Ÿ˜ฆ I know you’re doing great, though!


  6. cfurze says:

    it is difficult to imagine better company to be put into ๐Ÿ™‚
    (the group and DMaass and you!)


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